The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits
The Billboard charts have a currency acknowledged around the world. The Billboard Book Of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, written by Adam White and Fred Bronson, pays tribute to many of those who helped to create a quarter-century of unimpeachable music: singers, songwriters, musicians, producers and more – even some of the record executives whose hustle delivered the hits and sent them to the soul summit.
I’LL TAKE YOU THERE
The Staple Singers
Writer: Alvertis Isbell
Producer: Al Bell
No. 1, May 6, 1972 (4 weeks)
At home in Chicago, America’s torch-bearer of civil rights, Jesse Jackson, was receiving a visit from the president of Stax Records, Al Bell. Ministers both, they spoke about black business, black music, black resources.
“Jesse said to me, ‘One of the greatest black acts in America is the Staple Singers,’ ” recalls Bell. “ ‘They’re on your label, and you’re sitting there, allowing them to graze. Can’t nobody produce Mavis, Pops, Cleo, Pervis, and Yvonne but you. And if you don’t do that, you will have denied our culture the opportunity to hear the Staple Singers the way they should be heard.’ ”
Bell, of course, acceded. The year was 1970, and America’s first family of gospel had already been together for two decades. They had joined Stax two years earlier, but not reached their full potential. “The involvement became spiritual,” Bell says, “because I knew the Staples going back to my days in radio in Arkansas. They became my pulpit.”
“I’ll Take You There” was a highly personal sermon. Bell’s younger brother had died, his third sibling to perish by the gun, and the Stax chief went home to Little Rock. Last respects paid, the casket buried, Bell returned to his parents’ house and walked to the back yard. “My father had a yellow school bus he used to use to haul cotton choppers and cotton pickers in his younger years, and it was his little keepsake.
“I went back and sat on the front fender, and as I was sitting there, in my mind I heard bass, piano, guitar, and I heard: I know a place/Ain’t nobody worried/Ain’t nobody crying/Ain’t no smiling faces/Lying to the races. All of that came at one time, sitting there on that bus. And I proceeded to cry.”
By his own admission, Bell became obsessed with making the song work. He turned first to musicians at the Muscle Shoals Sound studios, his team for the Staples sessions: Barry Beckett on keyboards, David Hood on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar. “I sat there with Barry and all of the guys, and hummed out these parts. We ended up with about 30 minutes on tape.”
Next, the Stax chief travelled to Chicago to see Mavis Staples. “We sat on her living room floor, with me pounding out, showing her where the beat was and where I was phrasing it. She started doing it, and adding her bits as it evolved.
“We went into the studio and put it down with her, then used Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis to do the background, and Mavis did Pops’ part in the background.” Later, too, the elder Staples’ tremendous guitar solo was overdubbed, together with the stacked horns of Ben Cauley and the Barkays. “And Terry Manning put harmonica down from beginning to end,” Bell notes, “but we just used that little taste in there.”
The author of “I’ll Take You There” remains convinced that it was written through him, not by him. “If you play that record, “declares Bell, “stand and look out your window. Look at the trees blowing and life moving. You’ll find that everything’s in time with it, and it’s in time with everything. Strike a match and watch – it’s all in time.”
Nineteen years later, in December 1991, Mavis Staples returned, figuratively, to the place where Al Bell received his inspiration. She was guest vocalist on a new version of “I’ll Take You There” by BeBe & CeCe Winans, from America’s newest family of gospel music. Strike another match.